Conference Call

I went to Chicago last week for AWP, which is a conference of writers, and one thing I should tell you up front is that "conference of writers" is, for me, analogous to "the ninth circle of hell." I didn't go to be a writer; I went for my job--for one of my jobs; I have a lot of jobs, these days. I stayed in a fancy hotel with a lot of businessmen. The hotel elevators had mirrors in them and a little television screen that scrolled the day's headlines. On my second morning in Chicago I got in the elevator with a businessman who held the door for me and then tried very hard not to look at me, and the headlines on the tiny television screen were "Hundreds of Wolves Killed" and "Fetal Personhood Bill Passes Oklahoma Senate." It was before eight in the morning and I started to cry, for the next twenty floors, wiping at my eyes and hoping the businessman wouldn't notice. He held the door for me again at the lobby without looking at my face.

At AWP I was trying to tell people about the personhood bill but, you know, no one wants to hear that shit at a bookfair. No one wants to hear about my body. No one believes it will actually happen, except that it is happening. It is happening now. I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you are trying to warn people about something important but your mouth won't open. That bitch just doesn't know when to shut up. Sometimes people didn't know what I was talking about; "Personhood of what?" someone said to me, and I gave up and went into the bathroom and locked myself in a stall and cried some more. The bathroom had started to smell pretty awful by the second day--there were something like eleven thousand people there, I don't think the Hilton was really prepared. I don't want to feel like this all the time. I understand it is not comfortable for other people to be around me, to be around the bitch who will not shut up. I don't want to be the person wandering around the marble lobby of the Chicago Hilton having a fucking panic attack because no one feels like home to me, because I do not ever want to talk to anyone about whether I am a writer again, because right now, right fucking now, every fucking right I have is being stripped away from me, is being stripped away from people I care about, and no one seems to fucking care; but here I am, that person. I tried to meet people; I did a pretty good job, for me. I lost count of the number of people who came up to me and took my hand and gazed into my eyes and said, "It's so good to see you again," and when I stared at them in terror added gently, "You remember, we met last year," and each one of them seemed so genuinely pleased that I did not have the heart to tell them I have never been to AWP in my life.

On the second night I went to a poetry reading at a hot-dog restaurant with some people from my work. It was a fast-food sort of place. Three employees of the hot-dog restaurant stood behind the counter, watching all the white people file in and read poems about trees or dildos or whatever. Language experiments. I probably don't need to tell you that the hot-dog restaurant employees were black, but I'll tell you anyway. In situations like that I want to do something, to clearly demonstrate that I am on the side of the help--you know, climb over the counter, spray down the dish pit. Like that would somehow alter the balance of everything that is fucked-up in the world. The poetry reading went on forever and the room got hotter and hotter and I went outside and stood on the sidewalk with the people from my work. We passed around a bottle of whiskey and talked about how fucked-up it was. I guess it made us feel better about ourselves, that we had noticed the palpably obvious. I couldn't understand the purpose of poetry in that moment, couldn't understand what there was to care about. The poems were fine and some of them were even good but all I could think about was the people who worked there, leaning up against the counter, waiting for us to leave. Later I found out that one of the hot-dog restaurant employees had been there since five in the morning, that she would have to be there again, the next morning, to open. When I went back to the hotel that night I got in the elevator with a different businessman--I think it was a different one; maybe not. They all look the same. I was wearing my favorite gloves, the ones with the skeleton hands on them. Both the businessman and I were very drunk. "Jesus," said the businessman. "Those are some awful gloves."

I had a drink one night with my friend Bojan, who lives in Phoenix--Bojan Louis, that is a name I want you to remember, because that dude is going to be a big fucking deal--and we were talking about the book bannings in Arizona and how lost we felt at AWP, surrounded by people who were going about their business as if nothing was wrong, tenured and placid. "I'm not interested in language anymore," I said, "unless it's doing the work of revolution," and it was one of those things I didn't know was true until I said it and then when I said it I knew it had been true, for me, all along. "It can still be beautiful," Bojan said, and I said, "I want it to always be beautiful." And that's it, that's what I want: I want beauty that remakes the world. When I make jokes about guillotines people get uncomfortable but you know, I'm not really joking anymore, is the thing. I know how that one ended but look around you. Look around you and tell me you don't want guillotines a little, too. Tell me you don't want language that is a shear, cutting through; tell me you don't want words that leave the streets running with blood. Bojan gave a talk the next morning at the Indigenous Writers' Caucus and the moderator, LeAnne Howe, started out by taking off her gloves and slapping them against the podium, shouting, "I'm throwing down the gauntlet!" and I thought Oh my god, finally, finally we are talking about it, and we did. Talked about making language into a weapon. Talked about fighting, about never giving in--you know who knows about fighting in the face of impossible odds, about never giving in in this country? The indigenous people of the Americas, that's for fucking sure. "Personhood is something the Choctaw Nation could have used in Oklahoma a long time ago," is one of the things that LeAnne Howe said. Bojan read, read about being an electrician, about the movement of currents, of power, about the banning of stories, about working ten-hour days and watching the undocumented workers laboring alongside him get deported at the end of the workday, about how fucking angry and tired he is, all of us are, and it was--I don't even have the words for what it was. That language, terrible and gorgeous and necessary, a knife cutting me open; I am thinking now of those tools that split apart your ribcage and leave bare what's inside. This, I thought, this is fucking poetry, crying openly this time, letting it go, getting ready. Our anger is how we find each other, how we make a place that is ours. You'll know me in the street by the rage I live with, by the rage I will not hide.